Shibui means unobtrusive beauty. Wabi sabi is the reflection of inner perfection, simplicity, the rustic and the unembellished. The company Uniqlo, whose 768 stores have annual sales to date of ¥462.3 billion (US$ 5.1 billion) and include locations in the US, UK, Hong Kong, China, Korea and France, is founded on the premise of high-quality, unadorned casual clothes for everybody using the best, most innovative materials and ever-evolving processes that allow the individual to come through by way of his or her own dressing habits. Muji, a simple lifestyle brand that uses natural and recycled materials and employs top designers whose names are absent from all packaging and merchandising, is thriving, with 433 stores across 16 countries. There are no unnecessary frills in Muji’s design, and the price shows an equal amount of humility of spirit.
From Uniqlo’s simple pared-down clothes to Muji’s guileless design excellence at pared-down prices, simplicity and paying homage to the most basic essence of our habits is the key to success—and an example of how living the brand means much more than just selling products.
Lesson 3: Reverence for Nature and the Human Touch
Products that exhibit the human touch and an understanding of the environment are what consumers—and society—demand now. Japan is known for sci-fi style innovation but also for employing nature’s materials in unique and reverent ways.
Japan’s ancient Shinto religion is based on reverence for nature and the power of the spirit of animals. Later, Zen Buddhism paid homage to nature in the form of pristinely preserved rock gardens and an abundant use of natural materials. In 2008, the New York Times acknowledged Japan as one of the world’s most energy-frugal developed nations, citing its single-minded dedication to reducing energy use. The 2008 G8 Hokkaido Toyako Summit was wholly dedicated to measures to counteract global warming in every industry, in government and in civilian life.
Number five of Toyota’s 14 guiding principles is “be reverent, and show gratitude for things great and small in thought and deed.” A brand called “Japan Brand” takes the incredible wealth of traditional techniques and materials in each area of Japan and creates new products for the contemporary environment. The three tenets of the brand are Artisan Quality, Practical Beauty and Regional Spirit. The company utilizes local resources, local craftsman and local entrepreneurship to keep the traditions of metal casting, woodworking, natural dying processes and textile making alive, all with modern use in mind.
Superb craftsmanship, strict standards and attention to detail are what make Japanese brands the envy of other brands and the example to be followed when developing brand identities. But it’s the deeper cultural differences long embedded in Japanese society that are hyper-relevant to living and branding in a new, more accountable world.
An annual Japanese tradition is the Ohsoji, which means “big clean-up,” and refers to the occasion when Japanese people clean their entire house from top to bottom. Nowadays, however, that tradition can be expanded to include the sense of stewardship and responsibility the Japanese people feel about not just keeping their own homes in order, but also the environment. Japanese brands, not surprisingly, have embraced this sensibility and exhibit their concern via many initiatives. Subaru, for example, uses 28 percent less energy in its factories than in 1990 and already meets the 2010 fuel economy standards set for Japan, the United States and Europe. Subaru’s new cars are built so that materials are easier to separate in recycling. They and most major Japanese manufacturers recycle airbags, fluorocarbons and other difficult materials. Honda Motors was voted greenest automaker by the Union of Concerned Scientists for the fourth time in a row. Aside from the Prius being one of the best-known hybrid vehicles, Toyota continues to improve plant-based plastics used to reduce the carbon footprint during the life of the car.
Japan’s Home Appliance Recycling Law already requires that citizens recycle household appliances. One of the 48 recycling factories dedicated to the project is owned by Panasonic, which does not lose money in the deal. Panasonic collects leftover tempura oil from employees and cafeterias and uses it for biofuel for its buses and trucks as well.
Brands are about values, and values are about people. It is the Japanese people—their culture, their society and their sensibilities—that are the power behind Japanese brands. From Toyota to Sony and Muji to Uniqlo, Japanese brands enjoy global respect for their high quality, attention to detail, technological edge and commitment to the environment. Japan, take a bow.